Focal Points Blog

Attempts by Petraeus to Turn Soldiers Into Boy Scouts Disingenuous at Best

Be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. That’s the Boy Scout Law. Add be a good guest, stamp out corruption, walk rather than drive, improve governance, and fight the bad guys, and you will have the new code of conduct for counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan.

All together, there are twenty-four precepts in the counterinsurgency guidelines that General Petraeus issued to the troops on August 1. In addition to the ones mentioned above, they include securing the population, acting as a team, partnering with the Afghan Army, and doling out dollars carefully.

In theory, there is something new about these guidelines, which claim to take the general principles of the Army’s counterinsurgency field manual and apply them to the specific situation in Afghanistan. In actuality, the word Afghan has merely replaced the more generic “host-nation,” which, between 2006 and 2008, was almost always understood as Iraq. Like President Obama, Petraeus is toeing the line on Afghanistan. On the one hand, he is staunchly defending the current strategy against a growing number of critics who say we are losing the war. On the other hand, as the most recent code of conduct exemplifies, he is churning out new directives on the operational end of things to ensure his soldiers and everyone else that he is doing something to turn the tide of a failing war.

It is unlikely that this latest set of directives will do anything to improve the situation in Afghanistan. What they do instead is reveal just how disconnected and unrealistic the counterinsurgency strategy there really is. In terms of personal conduct, Petraeus is asking soldiers to behave themselves nobly, as some but probably not most soldiers naturally would. Let’s face it. Most people don’t join the army because they want to be good guests in a foreign country and drink tea with their enemies. The rank-and-file’s recent backlash against courageous restraint is just the most complicated and pressing example of the clash between the character that counterinsurgency demands and the character that defines conventional military culture.

On top of that, the new directives ask soldiers to advance wildly ambitious structural reforms that even the most experienced of statesmen have not been able to achieve in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Warning against putting money in the wrong hands, the code of conduct reminds soldiers, “We are who we fund.” I suppose that makes us both the Pakistani government to which we just promised another five hundred million dollars and the Iraqi government officials who pocketed the nine billion dollars we gave them from oil revenue we controlled during the occupation.

I’m not so sure the higher-ups are in a position to give the rank-and-file any advice on this one. Reading over the twenty-four guidelines is like reading the to-do list of Beaver Cleaver who also just happens to be Superman who also just happens to have a passion for fighting corruption and implementing good governance. The problem here is not just that counterinsurgency expects too much from soldiers. It’s that it expects too much from anyone involved in counterinsurgency—civil or military, American or Afghani. Whether practiced by a soldier or a state official, by a native or a foreigner, no individual code of conduct is going to bring about the huge changes in society that are necessary for counterinsurgency to be effective. This latest set of directives just underscores the absurd chasm between America’s enormously ambitious goals in Afghanistan and the embarrassingly simplistic and hokey conception of how to achieve them.

When I was in the Girl Scouts, they used to tell us to “always leave a place cleaner than you found it.” No matter how many codes of conduct Petraeus writes, when the US finally withdraws, Afghanistan will probably be even dirtier than before.

The U.S. and Yemen’s President: A Lethal Cocktail

Yemen President SalehHow involved is the U.S. military in Yemen, and is the Obama Administration laying the groundwork for a new foreign adventure? According to several news agencies, including Agence France Presse, UPI and the Washington Post, very involved and likely to be more so in the future.

“U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops,” says Dana Priest, the Post’s ace intelligence and military affairs reporter, including “the U.S. military’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command, whose main mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists.”

The quarry of these assassination teams are supposed leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but the deepening U.S. alliance with the authoritarian government of Yemen may soon entangle it in two complex civil wars—a rising by disenfranchised Shiites in the north, and an increasingly powerful secession movement in the country’s south.

According to UPI, the White House is quietly expanding “the footprint” of “elite forces inside Yemen.” One military official told the news agency, “The numbers are definitely going to grow.” The Obama administration increased “security” funds for Yemen from $67 million to $150 million.

Navy Seals, Delta Force troops, and intelligence units are working closely with the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, providing weapons, training and intelligence. And sometimes more.

On Dec. 17, 2009, a U.S. BGM-109D Tomahawk cruise missile attacked the village of al-Maajala in south Yemen, killing 55 people, the bulk of them women and children. The Tomahawk—launched from a U.S. surface ship or submarine— was armed with a cluster warhead that spread a storm of razor sharp steel and incendiary material over 500 square feet.

Amnesty International’s Mike Lewis said his organization was “gravely concerned by evidence that cluster munitions appear to have been used in Yemen,” because “cluster munitions have indiscriminate effects and unexploded bomblets threaten lives and livelihoods for years afterwards.”

The target was a supposed al-Qaeda training camp, but the Saleh government draws no distinction between AQAP and the Southern Movement (SM), a group advocating an independent south Yemen. The SM has a long list of grievances reflecting problems going back to 1990 when North Yemen and the southern Democratic People’s Republic of Yemen were unified.

That merger between the conservative north and the better educated and socialist south was never a comfortable one and led to a particularly nasty civil war in 1994. The north won that war by using jihadists freshly returned from fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. Since the end of that four-month war, the SM charges that the north siphons off the south’s oil without adequate compensation, discriminates against southerners on access to jobs, and has cornered the country’s vanishing water supplies. Southern protests are met with tear gas and guns, and, according to SM leaders, some 1,500 “secessionists” have been imprisoned and more than a hundred killed.

According to UPI, “The [Saleh] regime’s heavy-handed response to the southerners has only fueled the demand for independence and encouraged the disparate southern groups to come together.”

Saleh claims the SM is closely tied to AQAP, which immediately gets Washington’s attention, and has allowed his government to tap into the resources of the American “war on terrorism.” Southern independence leaders, like Tariq al-Fadhli, deny any ties to AQAP and say the Southern Movement is non-violent. Whether it will remain so under the Saleh government’s continued assaults is an open question. The December cruise missile strike is not likely to encourage pacifism.

The fighting in the north between the Saleh government based in the capital, Sanaa, and the Shiite Houthi, who inhabit the north’s forbidding terrain, is long-standing. While Saleh and his supporters in Saudi Arabia say Iran is stirring up the trouble, there is no evidence for ties between Iran and the Houthi. The tensions between the Saleh government and the Houthi are local and generally have to do with access to political power. But by bringing Iran into the picture, Saleh can claim he is fighting terrorism, thus making his regime eligible for arms, intelligence, and training.

The U.S. is ratcheting up the use of Special Operations Forces (SOF) worldwide. The administration has increased the number of countries in which SOFs are deployed from 60 to 75, and upped the SOF budget 5.7% to $6.3 billion for 2011. The White House also added an additional $3.5 billion for SOFs to its 2010 budget.

One military official told the Washington Post that the Obama administration had given the military “more access” than former President George W. Bush. “They [the Obama administration] are talking publically much less but that are acting more. They are willing to get aggressive much more quickly.”

In a recent talk that sounded very much like the Bush administration’s doctrine of pre-emptive war, the White House’s counterterrorism expert John Q. Brennan said that U.S. strategy was not to just “respond after the fact to terrorism,” but to “take the fight to al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates, whether they plot and train in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond.”

If the U.S. does increase its military footprint in Yemen, it will be expending hundreds of millions of dollars in the poorest country in the region, a country where 40 percent of its 22 million residents are jobless and where water is becoming a scare commodity. The U.S. shares much of the blame for the current economic crisis in Yemen. When Yemen refused to support the 1991 Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, Saudi Arabia expelled 850,000 Yemeni workers, and the U.S. cut $70 million in foreign aid. The effect of both actions was catastrophic, and Yemen never recovered from the one-two blow.

U.S. support for the Saleh regime will inevitably draw it into the conflicts in the north and the south, with disastrous results for all parties.

“In Yemen the U.S. will be intervening on one side in a country which is always in danger of sliding into a civil war,” says the Independent’s Middle East reporter Patrick Cockburn. “This has happened before. In Iraq the U.S. was the supporter of the Shia Arabs and Kurds against the Sunni Arabs. In Afghanistan it is the ally of the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara against the Pushtun community. Whatever the intentions of Washington, its participation in these civil conflicts destabilizes the country because one side becomes labeled as the quisling supporter of a foreign invader. Communal and nationalist antipathies combine to create a lethal blend.”

Read more of Conn Hallinan essays can at Dispatches from the Edge, where he can also be contacted.

GOP on START: Side Dish of Lard With That Pork, Please

At Wonk Room on Think Progress Max Bergmann wrote a commentary on how Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is shepherding Republican obstructionism on the passage of the new START. As you may have heard, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry felt compelled to delay the scheduled START ratification vote. You may have also heard McConnell’s disarming comment:

“All they have to do is find enough money to satisfy Senator Kyl. … In my view they need to do that, because without that I think the chances of ratification are pretty slim.”

What, Bergmann wonders aloud, does McConnell’s statement tell us? First, he explains, it:

“. . . clearly indicates that support for START is all about whether Kyl is satisfied with nuclear modernization funding. [Even though] the Administration has already pushed through a massive 15% increase. Yet Kyl and his colleagues are demanding more. [Senator] Corker’s chief interest, for instance, is the Uranium Processing Facility in Oak Ridge, TN, which Corker seemingly arbitrarily determined needs between $4-$5 billion, well above the projected $1.4-$3.5 billion that the facility’s own contractor projects.”

“Side dish of lard with that pork, please.” Also, writes Bergmann:

“. . . it’s a massive slap in the face of Richard Lugar [Think Lugar-Nunn Act for rounding up loose Soviet nukes. -- RW] and shows the far-right direction the Senate GOP has taken. McConnell’s interview basically says if Kyl is given what he wants than everyone will fall into line. But there is no mention of Richard Lugar who is a strong supporter of the treaty. This demonstrates where the ideological direction the GOP is headed. McConnell neglects (and seemingly rejects) his party’s foremost authority on nuclear weapons issues in the Senate, in favor of the far right approach of Kyl. … It also shows how impotent Lugar is in influencing his colleagues.”

Not only has Senator Lugar been elbowed aside, but national security as well. Bergmann again:

“When Anthony Wiener went ballistic on the floor of the House because House Republicans refused to vote for health care funding for 9-11 workers, it exposed the do nothing obstructionist bent of the GOP even when it comes to 9-11. Similarly, the one thing you would hope the GOP wouldn’t mess with is nuclear stability. Yet without the New START treaty in place the US military is rapidly losing its knowledge of and intelligence about the Russian nuclear arsenal because since the original START treaty expired last December the US no longer has boots on the ground monitoring what Russia is doing with its nuclear weapons.”

Republicans, and hawks in general, like to congratulate themselves for looking at the big picture and far down the road. In other words, they’re willing to sacrifice security in the short-term — such as attacks from terrorists we’ve created through heavy-handed policies, aiding and abetting an Israeli attack on Iran, even missile defense prompting preemptive nuclear strikes — for policies that they think will make us safer in the long term. A few billion for their constituents doesn’t hurt either.

If They’d Listened to the Scientists We Might Not Need to Observe Hiroshima Day

Originally published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1948 and in a 1956 book, a poll was posted on Ptak Science Books History of Ideas blog in 2007, but only recently brought to my attention. It seems that in July 1945 answers to a multiple-choice questionnaire were solicited from 250 scientists at the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory division of the Manhattan Project. The question and choices:

Which of the following five procedures comes closest to your choice as to the way in which any new weapons that may develop should be used in the Japanese war?

1. Use them in the manner that is from the military point of view most effective in bringing about prompt Japanese surrender at minimum cost to our armed forces.

2. Give a military demonstration in Japan to be followed by renewed opportunity for surrender before full use of the weapon is employed.

3. Give an experimental demonstration in this country, with representatives of Japan present, followed by a new opportunity for surrender before full use of the weapon is employed.

4. Withhold military use of the weapons, but make public experimental demonstration of their effectiveness. [Not sure how this differs from questions 2 and 3. -- RW]

5. Maintain as secret as possible all developments of our new weapons and refrain from using them in this war.

The scientists’ votes: 1: 15%, 2. 46%, 3. 26%, 4. 11%, 5. 2%.

In light of how few supported unequivocal use of the new weapon, you see that policymakers, at best, took their responses, “under advisement.” An opportunity was lost to use discretion and end the war on an uplifting note which would have acted as a springboard to a more peaceful world. Especially since more and more historians now believe that it wasn’t the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that prompted Japan to surrender.

No one is more eloquent on this subject than Ward Wilson of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. At Rethinking Nuclear Weapons he recently wrote: “The evidence that the Emperor was deeply affected by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is so gossamer thin that the merest breath of skepticism sweeps it aside.” (For more see Wilson’s June, 2007 International Security article The Winning Weapon?) After all, Japan had already lost 100,000 in the bombing of Tokyo and tens of thousands more in comprehensive bombing that included towns as small as yours or mine. Bear in mind, following that line of thinking, the demonstrations might not have induced the emperor to surrender either.

Apparently the reason Japan surrendered wasn’t that different from the reason the United States bombed — the Soviet Union. Japan feared the Soviets were on the verge of invading and the United States wanted to put the fear of God into them, you know, for future reference.

The poll:

Shales’ Disgraceful Dis of Amanpour

AmanpourAmerican TV news has become ever more parochial. Coverage of international issues has declined — falling to an all-time low in 2008 — even as U.S. consumers have expressed frustration at how little our tele-journalists tell us about the world.

ABC has attempted to answer this demand for more international coverage by bringing in veteran CNN foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour to host its This Week program. Amanpour dutifully promised to “open a window on the world.”

Only to get savaged by Tom Shales in The Washington Post. He calls Amanpour, for instance, a “globe-trotting Fancy-Pants,” making her sound more like a fashion model than a serious journalist. Also up for criticism is her inclusion of Ahmed Rashid as a guest. Shales refers to Rashid merely as a “foreign journalist,” so that he seems somehow low wattage in star power compared to George Will. But the Post reviewer neglects to mention that Rashid is a best-selling author, an elegant writer, and an astute analyst. Amanpour asks him to comment on the U.S. economy — a deadly sin, from Shales point of view — even though TV anchors routinely ask American pundits to comment on foreign affairs of countries they’ve never visited (and Rashid has spent plenty of time in the United States).

And then, finally, Amanpour commits the inexcusable faux pas of dedicating an “In Memoriam” segment to “all those who died in war” rather than simply American soldiers. “Did she mean to suggest that our mourning extend to members of the Taliban?” Shales wonders.

Obviously, Shales is unaware of all the civilian lives that have been lost in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. But perhaps this ignorance is not so surprising. Shales is a TV critic, after all. And he’s been watching less and less international news on the shows that he monitors. His parochial medium has shaped his parochial message.

“WikiLeaks is a criminal enterprise”

“Let’s be clear: WikiLeaks is not a news organization; it is a criminal enterprise,” writes conservative Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen today. “Its reason for existence is to obtain classified national security information and disseminate it as widely as possible — including to the United States’ enemies. These actions are likely a violation of the Espionage Act, and they arguably constitute material support for terrorism.”

Thiessen adds:

Assange is a non-U.S. person operating outside the territory of the United States. This means the government has a wide range of options for dealing with him. It can employ not only law enforcement, but also intelligence and military assets, to bring Assange to justice and put his criminal syndicate out of business.

In WaPo’s PostPartisan section, Eva Rodriguez is quick with a response.

“Military assests”? Does Thiessen think we’re going to send in Special Ops to pluck Assange from Iceland, Belgium or Sweden, where he’s known to hang out? Or is he thinking that a drone strike might be more effective or efficient?

It figures it wouldn’t be long before conservative forums across the country rang out with calls to “Bring us the head of Julian Assange.”

“Countdown to Zero” Eclipses Those on the Frontlines of Disarmament

The acclaimed new film Countdown to Zero may serve the purpose of alerting neophytes to the full extent of the danger of nuclear weapons. But for others, it’s best viewed while wearing a hazmat suit. Activist and cutting-edge disarmament commentator Darwin BondGraham explains at Monthly Review’s MRZine:

On its surface Countdown to Zero is about nuclear disarmament, but deeper down the film . . . is actually an alarmist portrayal of dark-skinned men, Muslims, “terrorists,” and other racial or ethnic bogeymen who we are told, over the span of 90 minutes, are seeking nuclear weapons to use against the American people. A related theme in the film is the demonization of Iran and North Korea which are portrayed as dangerous rogue states with ties to terrorist organizations . . . against whom military action may be warranted — or else.

If it’s not the likes of filmmaker Lucy Walker or, by implication, the Global Zero project of the World Security Institute, which is behind Countdown to Zero, that (wo)mans the frontlines of disarmament, then who or what is? Is it? How about Ploughshares and its president Joseph Cirincione?

BondGraham’s piece kind of spoiled them for me: “In a promotional video attached to the START ratification effort, Cirincione urges viewers to ‘join this patriotic consensus’ toward zero.” Then, in an op-ed Cirincione wrote, “The statesmanship demonstrated by the Consensus members today could help break the partisan blockade in the Senate and restore America’s leadership on this urgent security challenge.”

Wait, how did “consensus” go from lower-case “c” to capitalized? BondGraham writes: “The capital C Consensus he’s referring to is a newly formed NGO, created to translate the groundswell of public response they expect from” Countdown to Zero, among other things, into policies such as “aggressive military action against would-be nuclear states, much of it in the name of nonproliferation.” Funded by Ploughshares, the Consensus for American Security calls for “‘strengthening and modernizing America’s nuclear security,’ because it ‘is a vital element of protecting the United States and its allies.’”

Modernizing, BondGraham points out, “is not an arbitrary word. [It] means a very specific thing . . . approving the Obama administration’s program to build a pit factory, a uranium processing facility,” rebuilding “warheads and bombs” and “acquiring new, very expensive platforms like subs, bombers, and missiles.”

That’s Darwin BondGraham — never one to shy away from the task of turning the world of nuclear disarmament on its head.

If the frontlines of disarmament be not there, perhaps they’re in Congress, to which the Obama administration is taking the battle for START ratification. In the New York Times Peter Baker reports: “With time running out . . . the White House is trying to reach an understanding with Senate Republicans to approve its new arms control treaty with Russia. … The critical player is Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican whip [who] has sought to modernize the nuclear force.” An analyst asked if the administration is “willing to pay the price he’s asking in light of what they want to do” in the area of disarmament. “So far, administration officials say they are willing to pay that price because they are also committed to modernization.”

You can be forgiven for wondering where the “dis” in disarmament is here. Perhaps then the frontlines of disarmament look more like the Plowshares Nuclear Resistance? Founded by, among others, the Berrigan brothers, it’s still active (however long in the tooth its members are).

In November of 2009, it approached the Kitsap-Bangor Trident submarine base near Seattle, Washington. Ranging in age from 60 to 83, five members entered through the perimeter fence and cut through two more fences, while splashing around animal blood. They also hammered on the roadways and fences as well as scattered sunflower seeds. Once apprehended, they were handcuffed, hooded, and kept on the ground face-down for four hours. Though eventually released, they were liable to charges of trespass and destruction of government property.

While it’s easy to write them off as throwbacks another time and poke fun at their idea of symbolism, in fact, such acts accomplish little. For starters, the public is notoriously disapproving of anything resembling vandalism.

Thus, even the perimeter fences of a submarine base aren’t the front lines of disarmament. The honor goes to the those groups that act as watchdogs on behalf of the public for U.S. national laboratories such as Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore.

For instance, Livermore watchdog Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment) claims that the true plans of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) are significantly at variance with the agency’s public pronouncements, not to mention disarmament. Working with Tri-Valley CAREs, former Livermore official Roger Logan points to the difference it makes when the laboratories are run by a limited liability company (which includes the University of California and the Bechtel Corporation), as they are now, instead of the government, as once they were.

In a Tri-Valley CAREs press release, he said, “The people running the Livermore and Los Alamos management contracts have made careers out of inflating cost estimates, and NNSA either lacks the skill or the will to properly steward the billions of taxpayer dollars it requests each year.”

Meanwhile, Greg Mello of Los Alamos watchdog the Los Alamos Study Group tells us that $3.4 billion of the proposed $16 billion in new warhead spending is to be allotted to the construction of a Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility. Its purpose is to construct new nuclear “pits” (where the chain reaction begins).

In a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists piece, Mello writes that, at 270,000-square-feet, the new facility “would add only 22,500-square-feet of additional plutonium processing and lab space to [Los Alamos's] existing 59,600-square-feet of comparable space.” That “works out to $151,000 per square foot, or $1,049 per square inch.” Holy (watch your tax dollars go up in) smoke!

Especially since “there is already a surfeit of backup pits [which] will last for many decades to come.” The new facility “would increase production capacity to an even more absurd level.” In fact, he writes, every aspect of the project, “from the mission itself to the practicality of the building design, should be questioned far more deeply than Congress has done to date.”

To give you an idea of how the Los Alamos Study Group works as a watchdog, BondGraham (also with the Los Alamos Study Group) wrote in a press release, “Earlier this year we finally obtained enough information from [the Department of Energy] and its contractors to confidently determine that the increased cost, greatly expanded construction requirements, and qualitatively new environmental impacts that make the [Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement] different [from what] was originally analyzed.” Thus: “On July 1 we formally notified the U.S. Department of Energy of our intent to seek a new Environmental Impact Statement, and to pursue an injunction against [the] Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement [facility].”

This is what life on the frontlines looks like: poring over the books and seeking injunctions. It’s not an administration merrily conjuring up new concessions for the nuclear-industrial complex, nor is it disarmament groups of dubious provenance. Neither is it op-ed writers nor bloggers like this author. Instead, it’s those who, to cite Tri-Valley CAREs’ slogan, are engaged in “Stopping nuclear weapons where they start.”

Recent Colombian Mass Grave Discovery May Be “False-Positives”

If you want to understand what’s behind the recent tension between Colombia and Venezuela, think “smokescreen,” and then go back several months to some sick children in the Department of Meta, just south of Bogota. The children fell ill after drinking from a local stream, a stream contaminated by the bodies of more than 2,000 people, secretly buried by the Colombian military.

According to the Colombian high command, the mass grave just outside the army base at La Macarena contains the bodies of guerilla fighters killed between 2002 and 2009 in that country’s long-running civil war. But given the army’s involvement in the so-called “false positive” scandal, human rights groups are highly skeptical that the dead are members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army, the two insurgent groups fighting the central government.

“False positive” is the name given to the Colombian armed forces operation that murdered civilians and then dressed them up in insurgent uniforms in order to demonstrate the success of the army’s counterinsurgency strategy, thus winning more aid from the U.S. According to the human rights organizations Comision de Derechos Homanos del Bajo Ariari and Colectivo Orlando Fals Borda, some 2,000 civilians have been murdered under the program.

The bodies at La Macarena have not been identified yet, but suspicion is that they represent victims of the “false-positive” program, as well as rural activists and trade unionists. The incoming Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, was defense secretary when the murders were talking place. Santos also oversaw a brief invasion of Ecuador in 2008 that reportedly killed a number of insurgents. The invasion was widely condemned throughout Latin America.

Diverting attention is what outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is all about. While his foreign minister, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, was laying out photos and intelligence claiming that Venezuela was hosting upwards of 1,500 Colombian insurgents, a group of Latin American NGOs were uncovering a vast scheme by Uribe’s Department of Administrative Security (DAS) to sabotage the activities of journalists, judges, NGOs, international organizations and political opponents. Some of these “dirty tricks” included death threats.

Because the U.S.—which has pumped more than $7 billion in military aid to Colombia—supplies the DAS with sophisticated surveillance technology, Washington may end up implicated in the scandal.

The U.S. may also be tarred with the murder of Colombian trade unionists. According to Kelly Nichollas of the U.S. Office on Colombia, testimony at the trial of former DAS director Jorge Noguera indicated that the U.S. trained a special Colombian intelligence unit that tracked trade unionists.

Colombia is currently the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. According to the International Trade Unionist Confederation’s (ITUC) Annual Survey of Trade Union Rights, out of the 101 unionists murdered in 2009, 48 were in Colombia. So far, 20 more Colombian trade unionists have been murdered in 2010. In the case of Hernan Abdiel Ordonez, treasurer of the prison worker’s union, who had complained about corruption, the government refused to provide him security in spite of receiving numerous death threats. He was gunned down by assassins on a motorcycle.

“Colombia was once again the country where standing up for fundamental rights of workers is more likely than anywhere else to mean a death sentence, despite the Colombian government’s public relations campaign,” said ITCU General Secretary Guy Ryder. “The Colombian authorities must take urgent and effective measures to guarantee the physical integrality of Colombian trade unionists.”

Uribe certainly has reason to shift the attention away from Colombia and toward Venezuela. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is pressing its investigation of the “false-positives” murders, and Uribe’s brother has been accused of working with death squads. Santiago Canton, an Argentinean and former head of the rights commission, said “If you put all this together, the extrajudicial executions, the espionage of human rights defenders, it’s all really consistent over the years.”

And where was the Obama Administration in all this? Firmly supporting Uribe, railing against Venezuela’s suspension of diplomacy with Bogota, and, according to an investigation by the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), secretly funneling money to the media operations of Chavez’s right-wing opponents. Right-wingers in Bolivia and Nicaragua are also receiving money.

“Between 2007 and 2009, the State Department’s little known Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor channeled at least $4 million to journalists in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela through the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF),” says NACLA’s Jeremy Bigwood. In doing this, the State Department violated its own rules requiring that “all publications” receiving money “acknowledge that support.” According to Bigwood, the U.S. waived that requirement for PADF.

Colombia is Washington’s closest ally in the region, so it hardly surprising that Uribe’s right-wing government and Washington’s visceral hatred of Chavez should find common ground. But the attack on Chavez is also a proxy assault on the newly formed, 32-member Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the first regional organization not to include the U.S., Canada, or European countries.

Meeting in Caracas this past July, CELAC selected Chavez and the newly elected conservative president of Chile, Sabastian Pinera, as co-chairs of the forum that will draft statutes for the organization. While it seems like an odd pairing, the U.S. media’s cartoonish characterization of Chavez is not shared widely in Latin America. “Chavez…has shown himself adaptable to making major compromises in order to further Latin American and regional integration,” says Alexander Main of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

And while Pinera is very conservative, according to Main, “his toned down approach to international relations indicates that he too is prepared to act pragmatically.”

The Caracas meeting called for “political, economic, social and cultural integration” and affirmed the right of “each state to constitute its own political system free of threats, aggressions and unilateral coercive measures.” Tellingly, there was no mention of “free trade” or “open markets,” the so-called “Washington consensus” that characterized U.S. economic doctrine in the region over the past several decades.

As Latin America grows in economic strength and political independence, U.S. policy seems locked into a previous century when it was the major power in the region. Rather than retooling its diplomatic approach to fit the new reality in Latin America, Washington is expanding its military footprint.

It is will soon be operating out of seven military bases in Colombia and has reactivated its 4th Fleet, both highly unpopular moves in Latin America. Rather than taking the advice of countries in the region to demilitarize its war on drugs, the U.S. recently announced it is deploying 46 warships and 7,000 soldiers to Costa Rica to “interdict” drug traffic and money laundering. From 2000 to 2009, less than 40 percent of U.S. aid to the region went to Latin America’s militaries and police. The Obama Administration has raised that figure to 47 percent.

Washington and Bogota may try to demonize Venezuela, but they are playing to a very small audience, and one that grows smaller—and more irrelevant—by the day.

Conn Hallinan’s essays can be read at Dispatches from the Edge

Israel Playing With a Fire It Expects the U.S. to Put Out

Reuel Marc Gerecht’s screed justifying an Israeli bombing attack on Iran coincides with the opening of the new Israel lobby campaign marked by the introduction of House resolution 1553 expressing full support for such an Israeli attack.

What is important to understand about this campaign is that the aim of Gerecht and of the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu is to support an attack by Israel so that the United States can be drawn into direct, full-scale war with Iran.

That has long been the Israeli strategy for Iran, because Israel cannot fight a war with Iran without full U.S. involvement. Israel needs to know that the United States will finish the war that Israel wants to start.

Gerecht openly expresses the hope that any Iranian response to the Israeli attack would trigger full-scale U.S. war against Iran. “If Khamenei has a death-wish, he’ll let the Revolutionary Guards mine the strait, the entrance to the Persian Gulf,” writes Gerecht. “It might be the only thing that would push President Obama to strike Iran militarily….”

Gerecht suggest that the same logic would apply to any Iranian “terrorism against the United States after an Israeli strike,” by which we really means any attack on a U.S. target in the Middle East. Gerecht writes that Obama might be “obliged” to threaten major retaliation “immediately after an Israeli surprise attack.”

That’s the key sentence in this very long Gerecht argument. Obama is not going to be “obliged” to join an Israeli aggression against Iran unless he feels that domestic political pressures to do so are too strong to resist. That’s why the Israelis are determined to line up a strong majority in Congress and public opinion for war to foreclose Obama’s options.

In the absence of confidence that Obama would be ready to come into the war fully behind Israel, there cannot be an Israeli strike.

Gerecht’s argument for war relies on a fanciful nightmare scenario of Iran doling out nuclear weapons to Islamic extremists all over the Middle East. But the real concern of the Israelis and their lobbyists, as Gerecht’s past writing has explicitly stated, is to destroy Iran’s Islamic regime in a paroxysm of U.S. military violence.

Gerecht first revealed this Israeli-neocon fantasy as early as 2000, before the Iranian nuclear program was even taken seriously, in an essay written for a book published by the Project for a New American Century. Gerecht argued that, if Iran could be caught in a “terrorist act,” the U.S. Navy should “retaliate with fury”. The purpose of such a military response, he wrote, should be to “strike with truly devastating effect against the ruling mullahs and the repressive institutions that maintain them.”

And lest anyone fail to understand what he meant by that, Gerecht was more explicit: “That is, no cruise missiles at midnight to minimize the body count. The clerics will almost certainly strike back unless Washington uses overwhelming, paralyzing force.”

In 2006-07, the Israeli war party had reason to believed that it could hijack U.S. policy long enough to get the war it wanted, because it had placed one of its most militant agents, David Wurmser, in a strategic position to influence that policy.

We now know that Wurmser, formerly a close adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu and during that period Vice President Dick Cheney’s main adviser on the Middle East, urged a policy of overwhelming U.S. military force against Iran. After leaving the administration in 2007, Wurmser revealed that he had advocated a U.S. war on Iran, not to set back the nuclear program but to achieve regime change.

“Only if what we do is placed in the framework of a fundamental assault on the survival of the regime will it have a pick-up among ordinary Iranians,” Wurmser told The Telegraph. The U.S. attack was not to be limited to nuclear targets but was to be quite thorough and massively destructive. “If we start shooting, we must be prepared to fire the last shot. Don’t shoot a bear if you’re not going to kill it.”

Of course, that kind of war could not be launched out of the blue. It would have required a casus belli to justify a limited initial attack that would then allow a rapid escalation of U.S. military force. In 2007, Cheney acted on Wurmser’s advice and tried to get Bush to provoke a war with Iran over Iraq, but it was foiled by the Pentagon.

As Wurmser was beginning to whisper that advice in Cheney’s ear in 2006, Gerecht was making the same argument in The Weekly Standard:

“Bombing the nuclear facilities once would mean we were declaring war on the clerical regime. We shouldn’t have any illusions about that. We could not stand idly by and watch the mullahs build other sites. If the ruling mullahs were to go forward with rebuilding what they’d lost–and it would be surprising to discover the clerical regime knuckling after an initial bombing run–we’d have to strike until they stopped. And if we had any doubt about where their new facilities were (and it’s a good bet the clerical regime would try to bury new sites deep under heavily populated areas), and we were reasonably suspicious they were building again, we’d have to consider, at a minimum, using special-operations forces to penetrate suspected sites.”

The idea of waging a U.S. war of destruction against Iran is obvious lunacy, which is why U.S. military leaders have strongly resisted it both during the Bush and Obama administrations. But Gerecht makes it clear that Israel believes it can use its control of Congress to pound Obama into submission. Democrats in Congress, he boasts, “are mentally in a different galaxy than they were under President Bush.” Even though Israel has increasingly been regarded around the world as a rogue state after its Gaza atrocities and the commando killings of unarmed civilians on board the Mavi Marmara, its grip on the U.S. Congress appears as strong as ever.

Moreover, polling data for 2010 show that a majority of Americans have already been manipulated into supporting war against Iran – in large part because more than two-thirds of those polled have gotten the impression that Iran already has nuclear weapons. The Israelis are apparently hoping to exploit that advantage. “If the Israelis bomb now, American public opinion will probably be with them,” writes Gerecht. “Perhaps decisively so.”

Netanyahu must be feeling good about the prospects for pressuring Barack Obama to join an Israeli war of aggression against Iran. It was Netanyahu, after all, who declared in 2001, “I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction. They won’t get in the way.”

A Solution to Congolese Violence — or Empty Gesture?

As part of the sweeping financial reform bill signed into law this past week by President Barack Obama, a surprising legislative rider took effect seeking an end to the internal conflict plaguing Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The provision, which resulted largely from intensive lobbying efforts by the Enough Project to stop genocide, is designed to prevent destabilizing elements within the DRC from feeding off the country’s lucrative trade in precious metals. The DRC boasts rich deposits of tungsten, tantalum, and tin—metals commonly found in cell phones, laptops, video game consoles and other electronic devices—profits from which have long been seen to fuel the activities of non-state combatants there.

Supporters of the provision applaud its potential to help curb the hideous violence that has ravaged DRC for better part of the last fifteen years. Writing in the Huffington Post on Friday, Representative Howard Berman (D-CA)—Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs—championed the law’s commitment to limiting the profit opportunities that conflict minerals offer to armed groups within the country. The new law requires “that companies doing business in the Congo and adjoining countries disclose both the provenance of the minerals they use and the efforts they have taken to ensure that their dollars do not directly or indirectly support armed groups that employ rape as a tool of war and otherwise perpetuate the conflict…An important step,” Berman argues, “in changing the situation in that beleaguered country.”

But the unfortunate reality is that no matter how well-intentioned, the law will have little positive impact on the ground in Congo.

For starters, it presupposes a Congolese state capable of enforcing the law’s provisions. Under the regulations imposed by the legislation, electronics manufacturers must certify the origin of all minerals used in their products with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and comply with an order to produce yearly reports detailing their efforts to avoid purchase of so-called “conflict minerals.” Yet it is precisely an absence of the state in mineral-rich regions that allows the illegal trade in precious metals to flourish.

The vast majority of mineral wealth in DRC falls under the control of regional militias, directly and indirectly, rendering the state’s ability to regulate the flow of minerals into and out of the country practically nonexistent. According to reports detailing the mineral trade in DRC, rebels mine the metals and sell them to traders who then smuggle them across the border into neighboring countries. From there, the goods make their way along a complex string of exchange largely outside state purview culminating in their sale to transnational corporations. By the time the minerals have been converted into electronic gadgets, any attempts to trace their origin become Sisyphean.

Even if DRC possessed the state capacity to properly monitor the minerals and prevent warring factions from profiting off them, however, it’s far from clear that this would significantly reduce violence throughout the affected provinces. Mineral exploitation is a means of fueling conflict, not an end in itself. Until the broader issues wracking DRC—the continued presence of Hutu interahawame in Kivu, the incessant meddling of Rwanda in Congolese affairs, and land rights disputes, to name but three—are resolved, unabated violence in affected areas should be expected. Unfortunately, the United States has thus far demonstrated little interest in directly addressing these underlying causes of conflict in DRC.

And then there’s the larger problem of unintended consequences. Opponents of the measure argue that the hassles and uncertainty of verification will scare off potential investors, effectively saddling the country with a de facto trade embargo. If businesses do pull out of DRC, warns John Kanyoni—the head of the Association of Mineral Exporters in Congo—“thousands of Congolese will be jobless and might most probably (be) joining the armed groups.” Thus, the law could have the perverse effect of generating the very problems it seeks prevent.

These considerations aside, the new law constitutes a good faith effort to bring violence in the DRC to an end and force transnational corporations to reorient business practices that privilege the bottom line over human rights. It could be that, in the best case scenario, the law economically cripples warring militias in DRC, allowing local Congolese to enjoy a measure of safety that they currently are without.

But DRC needs much more than good intentions if it’s to emerge successfully from the ruins of state collapse. Above all, the country demands security. As we have discovered, unfortunately, assisting countries in this regard proves exceedingly difficult and politically fraught. Yet it’s of the essence. Until DRC is capable of performing the basic function of the Weberian state—monopolization of the use of force for the protection of civilians—the country will continue suffering under the heavy weight of social disorder. And any attempts by Washington in the meantime to bring the conflict in DRC to a close will do more to alleviate troubled consciences on Capitol Hill than actually bring about the meaningful change they purportedly affect.

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